Simon Stålenhag’s Tales From the Loop is a work of art. His paintings of an alternate reality town filled with machines and conspiracies is a lovely glimpse into another world, with small details hinting at something greater. Amazon Studios’ version loves what it’s adapting, creating a show that looks as gorgeous as its inspiration. But that’s not enough to make a good television show.
Helmed by former Legion co-executive producer Nathaniel Halpern, Tales From the Loop is about a small town whose economy, employment, and overall way of being are centered around “the Loop.” It’s the scientific facility designed to house and study “the Eclipse,” a mysterious giant ball that seems to bring with it all sorts of miraculous occurrences: time travel, robots, parallel universes, even a structure that can tell you when you’re doing to die. Many of these things are not well explained (if at all), which can be frustrating to viewers, but it makes sense in the narrative. The people in this town are used to this world. They go about their everyday lives, quietly co-existing with this strange reality that most of us would be confounded by.
Much of the show centers around one family, with Game of Thrones’ Jonathan Pryce as the patriarch and head researcher at the Loop, but it’s not an episodic, plot-heavy journey. Each episode is a standalone story (with minor connections to the larger narrative) that focuses on a different person’s experiences, using the Loop’s scientific marvels as metaphors for things they’re going through in their lives. The anthology vibe I felt wasn’t helped by the fact that I was provided three non-sequential episodes of the show for review, so I haven’t had a chance to watch the series in order yet.
Instead of being a pure adaptation, Amazon’s series is largely an original story that takes inspiration from Stålenhag’s paintings. Halpern told io9 in an interview that he chose not to rely on Stålenhag’s passages from his artworks to build the plot of the show, nor the Free League Publishing tabletop roleplaying game (which he hasn’t played). The result is a show whose core focus has been changed. The original paintings highlighted the child’s point of view, but this version is more about the grown-ups—even the plots centered around kids make sure to give them an adult to relate to. It also includes adult content and themes, including scenes of masturbation and sex, so it’s not really for kids.
Tales From the Loop has been described as a “cinematic experience,” and that description couldn’t be more accurate. This series is stunning. Boasting a bunch of great directors, including Jodie Foster, Tales From the Loop loves to revel in the quiet moments—long, lingering shots of landscapes, dotted with Stålenhag’s creations, matched with somber montages of actors sitting in their thoughts as strings crescendo in the background. I sometimes found myself staring at the scenes as if I had put a beautiful screensaver on my television. I wanted to look at them all day.
Therein lies the problem: This show is better to look at than to actually watch. Tales From the Loop has chosen to focus on style rather than substance, and the end result is a series that isn’t written or acted very well. The overall structure is good—I love shows that use fantasy or science fiction scenarios as metaphors for everyday problems—but it doesn’t know what to do with it. For example, the first episode is about a young girl searching for her lost mother, and the Loop’s “plot device of the week” is used to represent the idea of confronting the pains of your past. It’s a great, albeit not super original idea so it’s too bad the execution is disappointing.
It’s hard to say whether the writing or the performances are pulling the series down more, but in my opinion the writing and direction (of the actors) shoulder more of the blame—mainly because I know many of these actors can do better. They all seem so bored, delivering uninteresting lines with little affectation. Even Pryce, who turned Game of Thrones’ High Sparrow from a terrifying religious zealot into a beloved Bernie Sanders metaphor, wasn’t delivering to his full potential.
The standout so far has been Ato Essandoh (Altered Carbon) as Gaddis, a security guard who gets his own episode midway through the season. “Parallel” was, by far, the best episode of the three that I watched—mainly because of how much it was disconnected from the rest of the story and characters. Essandoh gave a quiet but complex performance, even managing to overcome some bad dialogue choices. However, the episode leaned heavily on the “gay men are promiscuous” trope, which kind of ruined it for me.
Tales From the Loop feels like a show that doesn’t care about telling a story, but rather how it’s telling that story. That doesn’t make it a bad show overall, but that means it’s not going to work for everyone. For folks who enjoy an elegant, cinematic-esque experience where the music and visuals are performing most of the emotional work, it’s worth putting on while you’re sitting at home doing some embroidery. But for those yearning to see Stålenhag’s world fleshed out into something more than a pretty picture, you’re going to be left wanting.
Tales From the Loop debuts on Amazon Studios April 3.
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